Don’t Hand James Harden The NBA MVP Just Yet
James Harden has pulled out to a decisive lead in the race to be NBA MVP, at least if we measure the race by the sentiments of the betting market. Harden is the (-110) favorite, having surpassed Russell Westbrook, who now sits at (+125). There may be money to made in this race for the NBA’s highest individual honor.
Make no mistake—if the season ends today, Harden is a slam-dunk choice for MVP. He’s averaging 29ppg. That’s impressive enough on its face, but it’s also expected from Harden. What hasn’t been expected is the improved rebounding he’s offered from the two-guard spot—his eight boards a game are a career-high.
And what really wasn’t expected was Harden’s newfound willingness to share the basketball. He now averages 11 assists per game, a huge increase over last year’s 7.5, which was in of itself a career high. The burden of being a ballhog, which has trailed Harden through his pro career, is something that lurks in the background of his MVP candidacy. At least for now, he’s embraced the idea of passing the ball as well as he shoots it.
These dazzling individual numbers come in conjunction with Houston’s 40-17 record. They sit in the 3-spot in the East and are virtually neck-and-neck with the Cleveland Cavaliers for the third-best record in the league overall.
That’s an MVP case, but if there’s one thing 45 years as a public handicapper teaches you, it’s to remember that betting futures isn’t about what is, it’s about what is going to be. And there’s a good case the market is getting ahead of itself with Harden.
Westbrook’s stat line is even more eye-popping than Harden’s. The Oklahoma City guard is averaging an amazing 31/10/10 line. He’s carrying a team that lost Kevin Durant in free agency. The problem Westbrook has is that the Thunder have slipped to the 7-seed in the West and an MVP isn’t going to come from that low on the totem pole.
But Oklahoma City doesn’t have to catch Houston for Westbrook to catch Harden—the Thunder star was the favorite even when OKC was fifth in the West. They just need to get close again.
And even allowing Harden’s excellence, are the Rockets really going to continue at this pace? The teams of head coach Mike D’Antoni have never been known for defense. While Houston is a respectable 11th in defensive efficiency, that’s still not elite. Teams that aren’t great defensively are known to have problems in the NBA Dog Days. It’s easy to see Houston coming back to the back and Harden’s MVP credentials suffering because of it.
This is also more than a two-man race. The market seems to have written off Durant and the best player on the league’s best team is now a healthy (+1200). As of today, the case for LeBron James is troubled. But the consensus best player available at (+1100) when his team is still atop the East and he has a chance to assert himself in the wake of Kevin Love’s injury? Or Kawhi Leonard at (+1200) if the best player on the second-best team in the league sizzles down the stretch.
There’s a long way to go in this NBA season and it’s too early to anoint an MVP. The market has jumped the gun.